Yesterday I ran across this news that’s nearly a year old. (Thanks, Ciro!) This fills me with happy joy and anticipation in a way that can only be understood by other people who’ve had something they love and adore adapted.
“The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag” is one of my favorite pieces of fiction ever, and is, I think unquestionably, the best thing Heinlein ever wrote. The summary for the movie says it’s about a man who realizes he doesn’t know what he does at work all day, and hires a married PI couple to find out. That’s a great summary of the inciting incident of the story – it’s not at all what it’s about.
The bulk of the story is about the PI couple. The novella was written in 1942, before Heinlein got lazy about building his relationships between his characters, and this story is mostly a love letter to their relationship. Ted and Cynthia, the PI couple, are real partners, a true team. Cynthia winds up playing secretary a lot – something people justifiably criticize Heinlein’s heroines for doing all the the time – but she’s clearly doing it because that’s the role she needs to play when they interact with the rest of society, and she’s clearly playing. The story pauses at several moments to sort of roll its eyes at the world that has those silly, narrow expectations for Cynthia, and to congratulate the couple for subverting those expectations to their own ends.
One of the things that has always drawn me to this is Heinlein’s unrelenting, visceral hatred of Chicago. He hates Chicago so much that it’s one of his most detailed, real settings. I’d already decided to move to Chicago the first time I read this, and the way he hated it, for being dirty, full of people, dense, was reassuring. Heinlein and I do not want the same things from our living environments, much like we don’t want the same things from our open relationships. But that didn’t matter, because telling this story in Chicago, and making Chicago a stand-in for everything that is broken and awful in this world, gives our heroes the space to be a couple, to be partners, to love each other.
And this is absolutely a love story. A bleak, pessimistic love story that still finds a way to let our heroes have a happy ending. A love story with protagonists who deserve each other and their relationship. It’s a story about what it means that we can love each other, and what that love looks like, and what it’s worth. And it does it with fantastically creep tension and a genuinely compelling mystery.
If you’ve missed reading this, and most people who aren’t dedicated Heinlein fans have, go read it. It’s lovely and rewarding and well worth the time you’ll spend.
2 thoughts on “A Love Letter to Jonathan Hoag”
People read stories written 70 years ago and criticize said relations from 70 years ago are plain stupid. Judging cultural ancestors by modern standards is ignorant and smug.
Dave, I disagree. There’s a lot to be gained from looking at things from contexts different to our own and analyzing them. Reading sf from the forties and seeing how it deals with different social issues lets us see where issues we still have today come from, let us measure the extent of change in the mean time, and can inform our current state. That exercise in criticism can inform where we direct our focus for current issues.
Think of it this way: is there value in looking at old scientific papers, even if they’re no longer considered valid? Absolutely. Seeing where the theory failed, or what the data analysis missed, or where the methodology was unsound lets us learn so we don’t repeat those mistakes in our new research. There’s currently a big upheaval going on in psychology where people are looking at old papers and, in the process of interrogating why the results have been difficult or impossible to replicate, discovered a great deal of nuance in theories that had a lot of traction.
And to address Heinlein’s case in particular, if you’re at all well read in his canon it’s quite clear that he knew better. He has entirely too many smart, capable women, too many situations where he’s ridiculing somebody for undervaluing women, to give him a “Product of his time,” pass. He knew better, and sometimes, too often, he was lazy. It’s not stupid to want the things we love to be their best, or smug to hope for the people we respect to be great. If we didn’t want and hope for those things, what value is there in loving and respecting them?